Mothering a Horse-Crazy Child: When Riding Happens Against Your Will

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

BY JENNIFER GOLIGHTLY

We didn’t mean to do it. In my case at least, I had actively planned not to do it when my daughter was born. Horses had never been a big part of my life, though I had occasionally ridden one for fun. I remember visiting my relatives in Tennessee, and flying around a backyard arena—terrified—on a horse who interpreted something I was doing as a cue to go faster. My experiences were limited, but when I had my baby my father decided the two of them—his only, beloved granddaughter and him—would ride together.

After growing up with horses, my father started riding again in his late 50s. He spent long hours at the ranch riding and caring for his horse, Savvy, a large-barreled dun quarter horse. It was around that time that I got pregnant with my daughter and began thinking of all the hobbies my father would try to engage the baby in when it got older—many of them seeming slightly dangerous to a woman who is about to be a first-time mother. Hunting… golf… horseback riding… the last I tried to put out of my mind. It was dangerous and expensive. I did not want my child jumping a horse over a jump, as my father was beginning to do with his own horse. 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

It happened gradually after she was born, but I knew where things were heading. When she was nine months old, my father put her on his western saddle in the garage on a saddle rack. At 18 months, she sat in front of him in the saddle on Savvy with her little hands on the saddle horn. By age three, she was riding Savvy alone with her feet not even reaching the top of the stirrups while my father led her around. When she was four, my parents gave her purple suede cowgirl boots. When she was five, she started helping my father groom Savvy on her trips to the barn. At age six, she led Savvy to the pasture by herself, my father walking beside her. 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

I had tried, beginning in her preschool days, to interest her in dance instead. She enjoyed it, and I hoped she would fall in love with dance and, if not forget about horses, at least find dancing more interesting. She took ballet, tap, jazz, even hip-hop. I tried to be optimistic. I took her to watch the older girls dance and to The Nutcracker ballet, to show her what was possible. But there were always little signs. She never wanted to go to dance class, and she asked to quit several times. Even the recitals with the big, fluffy costumes didn’t interest her. At her kindergarten graduation, when all of the kids had to take their diplomas and walk to a microphone and tell the audience what they wanted to be, my child said she wanted to be a cowgirl.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

When she went to the ranch with my father she came home from these excursions full of updates about what she had done: she’d groomed Savvy by herself, Pa let her ride in the four-wheeler to go get Savvy, she’d helped muck a stall, she’d driven the four-wheeler. Even at that age, she distinguished herself for working hard and doing a good job. The owner of the property gave her her own little pitchfork to muck stalls with because she was too small to use a real one without help. My father bought her tiny yellow leather work gloves to protect her hands. He and the barn owner encouraged her to jump in puddles, get dirty, be a kid, have fun. They made the ranch and the barn another kind of playground, one with the added advantage of having actual horses to pet, feed, groom, and kiss.  

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Golightly

I couldn’t stop it. I just watched while she fell in love with all of it: the horses, the sport, the barn, her trainer, the whole package.

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